I read a recent article in The Washington Post that told the story of a mother who is currently trying to get the book, Beloved, banned from the school system in Fairfax County, VA. As she explains it, “It’s not about the author or the awards…it’s about the content.” My first response would be to say, “Isn’t it always?” The second and more important point I’d make needs to be said more often: Individuals have every right to speak freely about the things they disagree with. As such, individuals have every right to abstain from those things they disagree with. What they don’t have the right to do is to abstain in such a way that it affects the rights of others around them.
This is upsetting on many levels. As a reader, I want to have the ability to read anything I deem of worth. As a writer, I want to have the ability to write anything I consider worthy of putting out there. Also, as someone who very much wants to have children someday (my wife claims I have “baby fever,” which couldn’t be more accurate), I want my children to have the freedom to read whatever they think they’d enjoy, in and out of the classroom.
I have a vivid memory of reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for the first time. I was fifteen, wildly immature (as that goes), and one who prided himself in acting the contrarian (as that certainly goes). I think my junior high teacher at the time called it “risqué” and then proceeded to tell me that I probably shouldn’t read it. Likely story. I had no idea what the teacher meant by “risqué” but it sure as hell sounded a lot like “risky.” Pair that with “probably shouldn’t read it” and you have catnip for curious, immature fifteen-year-olds.
So I did read it. I picked up the book at the library and couldn’t put it down. It was so very enthralling, even if I was too immature to fully understand all of the nuances of the characters, their motivations, and “Lost Generation” foibles. That didn’t matter, really. I read a book that I enjoyed. I read a book that I was intrigued by. I read a book that I related to in certain ways. I read a book that made me question things about morality and values and the choices we make and the subsequent repercussions we deal with. In the end, I read a book that was presented as something that may be dangerous or outside of the realm of my comprehension or maturity level.
And I benefited from it. Later, I went on to read most of Hemingway’s books, from A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and The Sea to most of his short stories and even a biography of the author (Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences). To this day, The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorite books—a conclusion I probably couldn’t have made if I had lived in an environment that discouraged and censored me along the way.
We need a world that is free from this discouragement and censorship. We need a world that inspires us to lose ourselves in the magic of storytelling. We need a world that gives us the opportunity to glean to our hearts’ content. We need a world that encourages us to engage and to think critically about all books. And yes, that includes Fifty Shades of Grey.
- T. Rees Shapiro, “Fairfax county parent wants ‘Beloved’ banned from school system,” The Washington Post, February 7, 2013.